Musical Steps of Courage
Anyone who appreciates great musical harmonies and heartfelt lyrics in a country mix grieved the recent death of singer Naomi Judd.
But we who live in the Tri-State Area encompassed by eastern Kentucky, southern Ohio, and western West Virginia felt the loss closely.
Not because we knew the Ashland, Kentucky native personally; that number was much smaller than those who loved her and daughter Wynonna’s songs.
But seeing someone leave nursing and succeed in the high-risk, high-reward field of professional music brightened all our hearts. Not only was she one of our own, but we also admired the courage that step required.
Folks in the Tri-State know of two other musical success stories involving Tri-State natives.
One is Billy Ray Cyrus, who hails from Flatwoods, several miles north of Naomi’s hometown. He used to perform in area nightspots before he moved to Nashville and struck it rich.
Of course, there was pain along the way. I remember the Huntington newspaper story after he rose to fame. Cyrus told a reporter he knew his first marriage was over when he got home late one night and his wife had thrown his clothes onto the lawn.
When Billy Ray finally made it with Achy Breaky Heart, one of the most danceable, catchy tunes ever recorded, the reaction was fervent.
Shortly after it debuted in the spring of 1992, I was in Ashland for a Big Brothers/Big Sisters bowl-a-thon. When the song came on the loudspeakers, the place erupted with cheers, catcalls and dancing.
A decade later, my wife and I became huge fans of Doc, the Cyrus-led series that aired on PAX (now ION).
Although I once heard a commentator refer to the show disparagingly as “airing on a cable network,” Doc and Sue Thomas FBEye—also created by brothers Dave and Gary Johnson—often rated higher than network programming on Sunday evenings.
The other story involves singer Michael W. Smith, who grew up in my wife’s hometown of Kenova and risked everything moving to Nashville as a complete unknown.
I ghostwrote Smith’s testimony in 1989 for a Christian businessman’s magazine; it released the same month the group held its annual convention in Nashville. A few years later, through a personal connection, I met Smith in person just before a concert in Huntington.
Worship Again Recording
A decade after that concert, we were living in Louisville. Two of our teenage grandchildren were coming for a weekend visit.
On Monday I heard that Smith was to be recording his Worship Again album at Southeast Christian Church that Friday.
I called each of our grandkids to say, “We could go the minor league baseball team’s game. Or, we could go see Michael W. Smith.”
Guess which they chose?
Smith recorded his album at one of the nation’s largest churches, with a sanctuary seating 9,100. Fortuitously, I heard on a Christian radio station that they would be running shuttles to SE Christian from a parking lot near the church, which is just off I-64.
We got to the parking lot at 5:30 p.m. and were soon at the church. They opened the doors early and an hour before the recording started, we were seated in the upper balcony. Today, I tell friends if they listen closely, they can hear me clapping during one of the tunes.
“Smitty” is the only one of this trio of artists I’ve heard in person. Obviously, Naomi Judd’s depression is proof that making it to the top doesn’t exempt singers from human struggles. But at the same time, those who succeed at making good music are worthy of applause.